|Sent on:||Wednesday, April 25, 2012 10:36 PM|
The interior of an abandoned shelter. // © Victoria Phipps/Getty Images
You know all about the real-estate market. But what about the "underground" real-estate market the secretive efforts of homeowners to install doomsday shelters at home?
If suppliers' reports are a gauge, the market is small but growing. Unlike 1950s-era fallout shelters and newer aboveground "safe rooms," meant to protect against storms and home invasions, bunkers are buried at least 6 feet under, in part to shield occupants from nuclear radiation.
You can buy a bare-bones shelter for $38,000 uninstalled or spend tens of millions of dollars and a surprising number do on a lavish, custom-made subterranean sanctuary.
Bunker builders cite a long list of client fears, from war and terrorism to megastorms and epic earthquakes. But the customers themselves aren't talking. "Secrecy is their defense," says shelter manufacturer Walton McCarthy, of Radius Engineering in Terrell, Texas. Shelter owners don't want neighbors and strangers pounding on the entry hatch in an emergency, he explains.
Also, many have installed shelters without building permits. While city and county authorities may disagree, McCarthy maintains that his prefabricated shelters fall outside building codes. "These have no foundations, so technically don't come under building code. They're self-contained and are not hooked up to the grid."
To sidestep nosy neighbors and building authorities, contractors may disguise the projects as swimming pool installations. "The hole is dug on Friday," McCarthy says. "We get there Friday at 5, by Monday it's in, and the neighbors can call whoever they want."
Small market, but growing
The home-bunker movement probably is not large. In 30 years, Radius has sold 1,100 shelters, from the six-person variety to ones big enough for 500. McCarthy says that business has doubled in the past five years, though, and that he's planning to nearly quadruple his 58-person work force and add a second plant.
Hardened Structures, a Virginia Beach, Va., company that makes custom and prefabricated shelters for homes, institutions and the military, reports that despite normal peaks and valleys in construction, its business has grown by 40% since 2005. The company's business is about half prefab products and half custom-designed, cast-in-place, reinforced-concrete bunkers, which average around 2,500 square feet. Hardened Structures has sold more than 1,000 shelters of all types, says Brian Camden, principal.
The larger bunker market is hard to assess. An industry group, The American Civil Defense Association, is apparently wary of attention. Sharon Packer, head of the organization and co-owner of Utah Shelter Systems, a manufacturer, did not return a reporter's calls and emails. People in the business are publicity-shy. "For years we wouldn't give interviews. They all want to make you look like a nut," Camden says.
McCarthy entered the field in 1978 as a young mechanical engineer, designing and making concrete shelters, then steel and now fiberglass. He wrote the U.S. Handbook of NBC Weapon Fundamentals and Shelter Engineering Design Standards. And he reports that his business generates $30 million to $45 million annually through the sale of 50 to 100 shelters a year. Radius sells to businesses, homeowners, churches and government. Most of the shelters hold 20 people or more and can sustain life for one to five years. Half are sold in the Washington, D.C., area.
The smallest Radius shelter, an eight-person unit, costs $108,000. Here's what you get:
Shipping is extra about $10,000 from coast to coast, for example and installation is an additional $20,000 to $25,000. And then there's excavation: The shelter requires a hole 25 feet deep, so it's too big to fit under a home.
Around 70% of his shelters are installed in vacant land outside heavily populated areas, McCarthy says. A deck or flower bed often disguises the entrance. "You hit like a garage-door button and open the hatch, you go in there and close the hatch It's like a big camper is what it is."
You also can:
Just don't look to the Federal Emergency Management Agency for guidance. It has no guidelines for building or installing a home shelter, an agency representative says. Military.com, however, links to several FEMA pamphlets from the 1980s with instructions for building home bomb shelters.
Who buys bunkers?
A Cold War-era fallout shelter won't address some of today's nightmare scenarios, which include epic storms and earthquakes; the release of chemical, nuclear or biological weapons; solar flares; and an electromagnetic pulse (EMP) set off by a high-altitude nuclear detonation. Currently popular, despite NASA efforts to debunk it, is the prediction of catastrophe in 2012, at the end of a long cycle in the ancient Mayan calendar.
Is a shelter, however well-constructed and hidden, even a good investment? Critics say the industry pumps up fear in order to promote the mistaken idea that buying something will help manage your anxieties. "We support reasonable preparedness. We don't think it's necessary to burrow into the desert," Steve Davis, president of Maryland-based All Hands Global Emergency Management Consulting, told USA Today.
And yet, the fears are powerful. About 30% of Camden's clients are into "2012 stuff, the-world-as-you-know-it-coming-to-an-end type stuff," he says. "I'd say at least half, if not 55%, is all geared for economic collapse and anarchy." The remaining 20% involves the military, data storage and EMP mitigation.
"Our typical client is a wealthy, white Republican, highly educated, usually with a minimum of a master's degree," Camden says. Typically, the shelter is attached to their primary residence. These clients, he says, fear that economic collapse is near.
In 1992, Camden says, a homeowner approached Powell Management Associates, whose architects, engineers and project managers manage big construction projects such as courthouses, schools and jails. The client wanted a $50 million fortified bunker home built in upstate New York.
That commission led to others. Hardened Structures was formed and split off from Powell. Camden says the company now has a license from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives to import war materials such as blast doors, blast valves, carbon-dioxide scrubbers and filtering systems for biological and radiological hazards.
It sells prefabricated steel shelters ranging from $19,135 for a storm shelter 6 feet by 6 feet by 12 feet, to $505,975 for a bomb shelter 7 feet by 40 feet by 90 feet. Hardened Shelters recommends at least 100 square feet per person 110 if you'll stay more than two weeks.
The most popular bomb shelter, at $38,000, is a steel shell with an air-filtering system, steel blast doors and blast valves installed. It meets specifications of ASTM International, an organization that helps develop international quality standards, and is engineered to protect against nuclear, biological and chemical disasters and catastrophic storms, Camden says.
But even when purchasing a fully outfitted prefab shelter, you'll need:
For a price, these details can be taken care of. A consultant can join you for a confidential interview for roughly $5,000. "Usually, we fly out to meet them," Camden says. The client, needless to say, pays travel costs.
Custom shelters run $200 to $600 per square foot or more, excluding transportation and installation. The more protection you want, the more you'll pay. For example, if keeping your location secret from others in the area matters, the company will fly in construction and assembly crews from outside.
Together, consultant and client decide who and what will be protected, how long people will live in the bunker and what forces and threats it must withstand. "From that point on, it's just physics and engineering," Camden says.
Camden says he doesn't judge or discuss whether these nightmares are likely to materialize. "We don't subscribe to any world-ending scenario," he says. "The client's priorities are our priorities. It's that simple: You try to give them peace of mind and you design a facility that mitigates specific threats."
Occasionally, though, his diplomatic skills are tested. One client, who wouldn't talk by phone, arrived at the company carrying a bag full of cash, attired in a fedora he'd lined with tinfoil to block government spies from reading his thoughts. His worry was that HAARP, a government research program in Alaska, was being used against civilians. He wanted to know if Camden shared his concerns. "It could happen," Camden says he always allows, when talking with clients.
He's less communicative when discussing clients, though. Did Hardened Structures build a shelter for the guy with the tinfoil hat? "No comment," is all he'll say.
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